March 17, 2008

Milosevic on Trial

Slobodan Milosevic was an awful tyrant- one of the worst that the world has seen and his condemnation throughout the globe (excluding perhaps Serbia and Russia) was deserved. He sanctioned the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and began wars which killed even more. In the early part of this century, Milosevic was surrendered by Serbia to the International Court at the Hague and in a trial, designed deliberately as an imitation of the Nuremberg, a set of prosecutors and judges attempted to bring him to account and make a finding of fact about what happened in Serbia during the 1990s. It is fairly evident that the Serbs committed atrocities, the prosecution's task was to prove as a matter of law that those atrocities had happened and that Milosevic had been behind them.

As such the documentary, originally made for television in 2007 but screened as part of a human right's season at the Clapham Picture House this year, chronicles that process of judicial interrogation. It presents footage from the trial- so you see the exchanges between witnesses, lawyers, judges and of course Slobodan himself who decided to represent himself in his own case. The rest of the film contains interviews with other people involved in the trial- particularly the lead prosecution lawyer, Geoffrey Nice, and on the other side Milosevic's lawyer, young, articulate and English speaking Dragoslav Ognjanovic. Ognjanovic is a Serbian nationalist who argues that Serbia itself is on trial, not Milosevic at the Hague and also believes that the trial is unjust. Nice on the other hand argues that the trial is not merely just but neccessary, and provides substantiating evidence of the atrocities, particularly by being filmed going to places where the Serbs killed people and discussing on camera the events that took place there.

The courtroom drama is fascinating. There are several exchanges which show vividly the way that Milosevic was able to exploit the system of the court in order to make his own points. Obviously in any legal system, you have to provide opportunities for the defence to make their points: Milosevic was quite able to turn the trial into a political occasion, airing bizarre conspiracy theories- apparantly the US, Germany and the Vatican were behind the Srebrenica massacre for example. The court process though is interesting from another perspective- you get a sense of the drama of a trial- the unexpected withdrawel by witnesses of their statements, the dramatic moments when evidence is produced, the confrontations between witnesses and lawyers and the confrontation of those who committed war crimes but protest innocence with evidence of their crimes. This is particularly vivid in the case of the leader of MUP (the Serbian military police), General Ivanovic, who is at one point shown evidence that MUP's specialist unit, the Scorpions, committed crimes within Bosnia.

All that is good- but the footage of the trial is often arranged to tell the story too dramatically. Its an odd criticism to make of a film that its too dramatic- but lots of this film feels like it has been drawn together by the conventions of staging and not those of truth. Firstly some of the material outside the court feels staged- meetings between Milosevic's appointed legal team are stilted and obviously done later for camera. There is a constant attempt on behalf of the documentary makers to assert that all interviews were done contemporaneously with the footage that they explore- it would have been better had those interviews been done later and admitted that they were historical. Furthermore this staginess means that we lose track of particular allegations: you capture the clash of the personalities but have little idea of what the Serb army or police force actually did. We know from the film that they weren't very nice, but I'm sure the film makers could have provided excerpts from the trial or even interviews which would have taken us further into understanding what happened in Bosnia and Croatia in the 90s. Furthermore, this is a portrait of an evil man, but nowhere do we get an examination of evil and what it means to be evil, what made him evil. The film takes us to the doorstep of tyranny, but does not open the latch and look inside the mind of the tyrant. Occasionally Geoffrey Nice tells us that Milosevic was an opportunist who lost control of himself and proceeded to start to do illegal things in the cause of opportunistic desire for power, but nowhere is this fleshed out.

Partly all these issues result from the conventions and limitations of documentary film making. It would have been nice to see more- but the case was not concluded and the footage say of final speeches does not exist. Milosevic died just before he was to have closed his defence and so there was no verdict. Furthermore the documentary is limited by the available time- it lasts just under an hour and a half and sums up a legal process that lasted many years, in which time both the first judge assigned Sir Richard May and the defendant died. There are complexities that naturally it cannot cope with. It also suffers from the nature of a modern documentary, explaining events to those who have forgotten the nightly bulletins from the former Yugoslavia in the nineties. Styllistic tics apart, its fascinating to see the largely unexpurgated film of the events in the courtroom.

The most fascinating thing about events in the courtroom is the behaviour of the protagonists. Milosevic behaves like a politician confronted with an accusation- he blusters and widens the question in the way that politicians do when confronted by accusations. The lawyers on the other hand behave like lawyers, focussing in a dispassionate way on the minutiae of the case. The differences between the approaches, the languages, that the two sides use is evident throughout and provokes most of the judicial ire with Milosevic: he did not behave ultimately as a witness on trial but as a politician in a political process. To some extent of course he was a politician involved in a political process- he was right- the process was intended to reach a political end, which was to account for genocide. But on the other hand, his behaviour devalued the way that was being used to achieve that end- for his own purposes Milosevic wanted to impugn the language of impartial legality with which the trial was examining his crimes. He did not want to be convicted but more than that, he did not want the possibility of a verdict. He did not beleive that there was anything wrong with what happened under his regime- and his way of proving that was to state that a legal method was the wrong way to examine his regime. Its an argument that his supporters have been making ever since.

Was the trial of Milosevic ultimately a good thing? On balance I think you have to conclude it was: partly for the sake of the victims. At one point we are presented with a montage of victims of Serbian atrocities: one can only imagine the cathartic release of at last giving evidence about what had happened to them in an open court. Its the same instinct that leads families in normal murder cases to fervently desire justice for their loved one, that meant the trial was a vindication of sorts and a closing of a chapter in kind for these people. As to Milosevic, it is hard to dismiss what happened at the trial. Thousands of hours of evidence were produced showing how horrible the Serb government of Yugoslavia was. The verdict was, as the film suggests ultimately, less important than the documentary record supplied. Geoffrey Nice even suggests, rightly in my view, that the verdict may well have obscured in the end the sheer volume of evidence submitted in the trial. Because we have an incomplete process in the end, all we can see is the evidence of Milosevic's wrong doing.

This is an interesting documentary- it isn't often that you see inside an international court room- you may not understand the process or the history of Yugoslavia much more at the end of the film than you did at the beggining, but you do get a sense of the scale of the atrocities and the personal drama of the court room. This is the court as gladiatorial combat, not as long boring argument, its courtroom politics for television: that has its disadvantages but also its memorable strengths.


Des said...

Will be watching. Its funny how most people voted into office turn out to be nasty tyrants.

stacy said...

Where can I get my hands on this film?

BTW, your first claim about nasty tyrants.. that's quite the claim. Not saying he wasn't bad. I just wonder that if some of the rulers had the technology availabe that modern leaders did, what they would do.

I have been reading a bit of Central Eastern European forklore. It's some grim stuff.

I have also been pondering the question of whether modernity goes hand and hand with "peacefulness'

Whther the United States is an anomaly in that it's short history means it doesnt have quite the grim-ness as some of Europe (or so this AMerican would like to believe about herself...)

Whether maybe Europe is so "peaceful" thinking today because it's sitll in shock over the holocaust.

Whether Europe really is as peaceful as it thinks?

I don't know. I'll stop with the non-sequiturs now.

Anonymous said...

Where can you find it? It's available in eleven parts on YouTube.

Near the end, Geoffrey Nice, the prosecutor, admits that his Tribunal tortured a man to death, put him through a "process" that caused him to "kill himself". The victim is former Krajina President Milan Babic. This makes the ICTY appear sinister.

"Milosevic on Trial" unfortunately has lots of problems. The Obrad Stevanovic section, the "gotcha" moment, in particular, contains an outrageous edit of his answer to a question about "no bodies no crimes". He replies that the security services were worried that the KLA would dig up bodies and fabricate crime scenes a la Racak. The edit omitted mention of the KLA and made it sound as if he said that the security services decided to dig up bodies for the purposes of blaming the Serbs(!??)

This footage made him look like an idiot. (I noticed that they made Milosevic's witnesses appear stupid or crazy and Milosevic's lawyer was made to look star-struck showing him saying things like "That's Dr. Seselj", and "He's a MUP general"...)

Then, footage of some shootings, supposedly part of the Srebrenica massacre, by Skorpions are shown and this group is claimed to be led by Stevanovic.

Moreover, they maintain Milosevic was unable to counter these claims. They don't mention that in reexamination, Milosevic showed that the Skorpions were deputised by the Krajina security forces to guard oil facilities and that the shootings shown happened nowhere near Srebrenica.

In short, this programme unfortunately reinforces the usual claims about the Balkans, but this is somewhat compensated for by the unmasking of the sinister ICTY, boasting of having "processed" a man to death.

Anonymous said...

By the way, just to clarify, Stevanovic was the MUP general. The MUP is the Ministry of the Interior Police, and each Yugoslav republic had one. The significance of claiming Stevanovic to be commander of the Skorpions is that Milosevic at that time was President of Serbia. To claim that a unit under the control of the Serbian Ministry of the Interior was participating in the Srebrenica Massacre was to attempt to claim that Milosevic participated in that.

The prosecution also claimed that Serbian intelligence was running a secret army across the former Yugoslavia, with members identified with red berets, supposedly commanded by Franko Simatovic (a Croat, ironically) and his boss State Security head Jovica Stanisic. Both are due to go on trial imminently but Stanisic's stomach cancer is delaying that.

The Captain Dragan segment is part of the attempt to claim that Dragan was leading part of this secret army, the Red Berets in the Krajina, aka Knindzhas. He is the one who waves the statement in the air, saying that it's wrong and that they put words in his mouth... (He mentions Simatovic when Nice asks him if he spoke to anyone in the evening between his examination and cross-examination, you can see that in the programme. I'm surprised they didn't explain that in order to more forcefully push an anti-Milosevic interpretation of the trial, ie Captain Dragan phoned Simatovic who ordered him to shut his mouth about the secret army and ordered him to disavow all he said, that is the interpretation that the prosecutors would have favoured...

he did tell the trial that the secret army did not exist, that Simatovic and Serbian police almost never visited him in Krajina, that the Special Operations Unit in Serbia led by Simatovic was founded in 1996, was made up of many veterans of the 1991-95 wars, including his Knindzhas, and appropriated its iconography including red berets, etc...)

Dragan made it clear, by the way, during cross-examination that he was a bitter Milosevic enemy; another programme on the trial even features him saying "I want to see that man hang"... he even seized the TV station on 5 October 2000....

Julian Jay said...

where can this documentary be seen?
is there an online link
pls email me at

Gracchi said...

Julian, Stacy I saw it at the cinema don't know where it is online.

Anonymous said...

The documentary about Milosevic trial can be found at:

Gracchi said...

Cheers Anon.